The Love and Sorrow of Having Cancer and Being an Infertile Parent
In honour of Infertility Awareness Week, Rethink is sharing stories of young women who are impacted by infertility because of a cancer diagnosis. Infertility is just one of the unique challenges that can come with being a young woman with cancer. From adoption to surrogacy to pausing life-changing treatment, read on for the ways in which some women cope with their infertility.
When you’re young and you have stage 4 cancer, you consider how treatment will affect your fertility. Some cancers, or stages, or oncologists only allow you to consider the issue at first blush, some not even at all; whereas other situations merit more time, but in any case, it feels like a choice between saving your life or bringing another one into the world.
This blog isn’t about the heartbreak you feel when you grieve that unborn child. It won’t talk about being asked at every scan if there is any chance of pregnancy. It won’t discuss that when you’re infertile and people find out that you have a child, they tell you to be grateful for the one you’ve got. It doesn’t make it easier when you have one child or even multiple when your decision to have children is taken away.
It’s about how your entire perspective on how you live and what you’ll miss when you’re gone is different when you have kids. That is not to say that you need kids to feel this way. That’s far from the truth. It’s just that when you’re young and you’re diagnosed with cancer, in my case a terminal diagnosis, there may not be a “next time” so there is pressure to make memories today. When you’re in treatment and even when you’re not, it’s not easy to do normal things like cook dinner and play at the park, even though you want to. You want to create memories with your kids. You want then to have memories of you that aren’t just you as a sick cancer patient. Financial decisions can be complicated. I remember wondering if I should even buy new clothes. Is it worth it if I’m going to die soon? The money could be better spent on the family. Even decisions about whether to take time away for a girl’s trip instead of doing something as a family are debated, usually internally. Questions surrounding extending your life but also making sure that you can live your best life are a constant tug of war. You grapple with the uncertainty of how much your body can take but also that you want to be there for your kids.
Cancer doesn’t just take away your ability to have more children, it can also rob you of the assurance that you’ll be there to raise them. You question whether you’ll be there to hold his hand on the first day of school. You wonder if you’ll see him sing in the recital. You imagine his first heartbreak, but don’t know if you’ll be the one to hug him.
You might say that no one’s future is guaranteed and you’d be right. For instance, my friend without cancer was tragically hit by a drunk driver and left three small girls behind. He didn’t get the opportunity to make the most of his last days. His family had no warning. But when you have cancer and the veil of ignorance is lifted, you see how fragile life really is and you can’t go back. It’s like a really scary movie. You can’t unsee it. You hope that you are a better person after cancer, a stronger person, but sometimes it would be a heck of a lot easier to go back to a simpler time before your diagnosis. Your problems then seem so inconsequential.
Cancer also makes it awkward at social events. My son went to a birthday party with kids from daycare and I panicked before going. I didn’t know how I was going to answer the dreaded career question of “what do you do?” I couldn’t say I’m a stay-at-home mom. My kid goes to daycare with their kids. I also didn’t want to say that I work as a professor, what I did before cancer, because then a slew of questions is asked about commuting and teaching. Plus, I haven’t worked since 2016 and I’d have to explain that I became a mother and cancer patient on the same day when I went into early labour at 33 weeks.
I could mention that I’m a badass cancer patient fighting for my life but that’s a conversation ender at the best of times and an opening for really personal questions about prognosis and fertility at the worst of times. At the party, no one asked about my career but they did ask if I was going to have more kids. Fertility reminders are constant.
Even if I was fertile, realistically, I couldn’t bring another child into this world. I’ll be in treatment for the rest of my life. I have ongoing side effects that make it difficult to raise one child, let alone think about introducing another to the mix. I couldn’t give that child the life I would want for her. It’s a hard reality to admit and even harder to accept.
But this is my life and I get to choose how I handle it. I get to decide during those quiet moments whether I let my mind wander down the dark tunnel. When I’m triggered, I allow myself time to cry and do what I need to fill up my cup again. I accept that issues surrounding kids will never be straightforward. Pregnancy announcements will be bittersweet. Baby showers will be fun but hard and awkward. Facebook posts showing new arrival pictures will come with smiles and a sense of longing.
Just like cancer shifted my perspective on life, so did having a child, and even though my future will likely be shortened, I refuse to only be positive, but authentic and embrace both the love and sorrow of having cancer and being an infertile parent in her 30s.
Oh and from now on, I’m telling the other parents that I’m retired. – Christa Wilkin